Swaine, Hollywood’s Temple of Luxury Accessories

What do Harrison Ford’s hat in Indiana Jones, Cillian Murphy’s cap in Peaky Blinders, and Gene Kelly’s umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain all have in common? Swaine London! This brand has specialized in luxury goods for more than 270 years and was recently acquired by the French group Chargeurs. We spoke to CEO Carine de Koenigswarter, who is working to bring this historic company into the 21st century.
Swaine CEO Carine de Koenigswarter. © Julien de Rosa/Point de Vue/AFP

France-Amérique: Swaine has close ties to the movie industry. Can you tell us about this significant part of your work?

Carine de Koenigswarter: During Hollywood’s golden age, Swaine dressed Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, and Frank Sinatra. Our accessories have also been featured in Singing’ in the Rain (1952), Dr. No (1962), Goldfinger (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and more recently in Batman (1989), The Da Vinci Code (2006), The King’s Man (2021), and the latest instalment in the Indiana Jones franchise, which was released in theaters last June. We are renowned in the filmmaking world, and studios love our tailor-made pieces. In fact, I have just returned from Los Angeles!

On the topic of Swaine’s history, before producing hats, umbrellas, and attaché cases, the brand supplied horse whips to the British crown!

Swaine was launched in London in 1750, which makes it the world’s oldest luxury house. Its founder, James Swaine, was a saddler who produced equestrian equipment for the royal court, including whips, harnesses, saddles, and saddlebags. With the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century, Swaine added luggage to its offering. Over the years, other craftspeople have joined the company and we now also make Brigg umbrellas and Herbert Johnson hats. Even today, our method of assembling bags is directly inherited from our centuries-old equestrian know-how, which includes saddle stitching with two needles and the use of English bridle leather, an extremely resistant material that takes on a patina over time.

How is Swaine different from the leading names in luxury leather goods such as Louis Vuitton and Hermès?

Just like these brands, we create long-lasting, premium, artisanal products that are passed down through generations. However, what makes Swaine different is its quiet luxury, the cornerstone of British elegance. You will never see large logos on our products. An English gentleman does not show off; he practices the art of subtlety. We are not in the fashion business, either, and we don’t have a prestigious creative director. We work closely with our 45 artisans, who are at the core of the design process. Swaine’s largest workshop is located just outside Cambridge, and we recently opened another workshop in the basement of our flagship store on New Bond Street in London. More than half of the collections on display are made on site, and our customers can see exactly how their bag is made.

Swaine supplied the caps and hats for the last two seasons of the show Peaky Blinders... © Robert Viglasky/BBC
... and the umbrellas for the film Singin’ in the Rain starring Gene Kelly. © MGM Studios

Swaine is also renowned for its bespoke offering. Could you tell us more?

It certainly is. In its role as the epitome of English luxury and an exceptional addition to the Savile Row tailors, Swaine is the temple of all things bespoke. A place where our customers can design unique pieces, whether an attaché case with a flag as the inner lining, a picnic trunk for a yacht, or a Champagne box bearing the family coat of arms. Swaine has also produced gloves and riding crops for Queen Elizabeth II, and umbrellas for the Queen Mother. Throughout its long history, Swaine has been awarded 16 royal warrants, the first of which dates back to King George IV! We are now waiting to hear what Charles III’s specifications will be, as he is very committed to the environment and sustainable development.

In a historic first step for a brand exclusively reserved for men, you recently oversaw the launch of a women’s collection. How did you tackle this major challenge?

Swaine is a British national icon that needed to be brought up to date. We had all the accessories for the perfect City of London gentleman in one place, but we had nothing for women – despite the huge demand for elegant items designed for the office, cocktail receptions, and parties. It was a shame, especially as the men who visit us are often accompanied by their wives. We had to be able to offer them something. In a nod to Agent 007’s iconic accessory, we created the Bond Girl handbag: a small attaché case with a shoulder strap available in punchy fuchsia, lilac, sky blue, orange, or purple. This is our idea of an English-style twist, a touch of eccentricity added to a highly classic product. So long as the brand’s identity and icons are preserved, the rest can be more rebellious!

In addition to these modern “twists,” Swaine cultivates an extremely strict tradition of sartorial etiquette…

Etiquette still carries a lot of weight in England. There is a very precise set of codes governing elegance, such as how a woman should carry her umbrella when she is not using it (in her hand or on her arm, close to the body, and never touching the ground). Wood types and colors are also important. A whangee or malacca umbrella handle is the sign of a military career, while a black attaché case would be carried by an attorney. There are so many codes, and our sales staff master them perfectly. This offers that little extra something, a barely noticeable detail that appeals to connoisseurs, although the brand remains accessible to everyone.

What are your iconic pieces? And which are currently the most popular?

Our iconic product, the equivalent of the Burberry trench coat or the Louis Vuitton travel trunk, is the attaché case. This is an object with strong symbolic power that represents success in business. The Bond briefcase and the phenomenally successful Bond Girl handbag are both among our bestsellers. The release of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has also revived our collection of Poet hats in rabbit felt. We can’t make them fast enough! Customers currently have to wait four months, but they are patient. They know that we work by hand, using rare and semi-precious materials, and so they accept these bottlenecks. It takes more than 30 hours to make one of our attaché cases, including seven for the handle alone. This is nothing short of haute couture.

The Bond Girl handbag. © Swaine
Swaine’s flagship store in London. © Swaine

Swaine has an outlet in Canada, at the B. Hemmings store in Toronto, and is preparing to enter the American market. Can you share more about this move?

To be precise, we are preparing our return to the United States! Until around 15 years ago, we had two stores in the U.S., one in Washington D.C. and another in San Francisco. Americans love hats, and they make up a major part of our clientele. A space in New York or a city like Houston would enable us to directly showcase our traditions, know-how, and bespoke service.

You studied at Harvard and have traveled extensively around the United States as part of your various positions within the Chargeurs group. What is your relationship with this country?

I was less than a month old on my first trip! My parents split their time between France and the United States, and I have incredible memories of my many visits to America. It is a fascinating and inspiring country, one that the French feel close to. I am part of the generation that grew up with U.S. movies and TV shows, and so America is a familiar setting.

Your great-aunt, the “jazz baroness” Pannonica de Koenigswarter, was Thelonious Monk’s partner and a patron of some of the greatest African-American musicians of the time. What do you remember about her?

I never met her, unfortunately, but she had an extremely important presence in the family. She supported the greatest Black American musicians, but as well as her generosity, she had immense freedom. She was a free, avant-garde woman. I also grew up in an environment filled with artists, and her career was a great inspiration to me.

Interview published in the September 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.